The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament revealed yesterday that it had tripled its membership in the brief period since Tony Blair announced his conversion to the cause of nuclear energy. This demonstrates something I had always suspected - that a surprisingly large number of people think the civil nuclear industry is a front for the nuclear weapons programme. Half a century ago, when the Queen opened the world's first nuclear power station, that was certainly the case.
While Calder Hall was promoted as the dawn of a new era of clean energy, Winston Churchill gave it the go-ahead because it would also supply weapons-grade plutonium. But to imagine that the current Prime Minister is engaged in a similar act of concealment is not just ignorant; it is paranoiac. While I realise that Mr Blair has done much to earn the cynicism with which he is viewed, it takes a truly warped mind to believe he has taken this deeply controversial step in order to produce plutonium which even the military don't want.
Fear, however, does strange things to men's minds; and it is fear which lies behind so much of the profoundly primitive opposition to nuclear power as part of the solution to the political problem of reducing man-made carbon emissions. While medicine has produced treatments for so many diseases which once terrorised us, its failure to find a "cure" for cancer has left us disproportionately scared of anything that might cause malignant tumours. And, as everyone knows, even the tiniest amount of radiation can have that effect. Only, everyone doesn't know that. They believe it, which is quite another thing.
A few months ago, at the time of the 20th anniversary of the explosion at Chernobyl, this column discussed the dangers of radiation hysteria, pointing out that if it were so lethal, it's a complete mystery that fewer than 50 people have died - not the thousands that had been expected or the hundreds of thousands of popular imagination - as a direct result of the massive emissions of radioactive material from the smouldering ruins of the Chernobyl reactor.
Last week's edition of BBC2's Horizon investigated precisely this phenomenon, and demonstrated that the effects of radiation were benign, or even beneficial, up to remarkably high levels. It has for some time been known that animals and birds have flourished in the exclusion zone around the heart of the site of the Chernobyl explosion. But Horizon went further, and showed a doctor performing autopsies on Chernobyl voles whose bodies were sending the Geiger counter crazy. These were voles which for many generations had fed and bred in a zone of apparently lethal radioactivity. What the doctors discovered, initially to their consternation, was that the cells of the voles showed no damage or mutation.
Most movingly of all, the programme spoke to a mother from Chernobyl, who described how thousands of other women in the area who were pregnant at the time were panicked into having abortions, for fear of giving birth to "monsters." This woman was one of the few who resisted the pressure to terminate. The resulting daughter, now a beautiful 19-year-old, held her hand to console her while she tearfully recalled the trauma.
Even with all this evidence, and even though the modern generation of nuclear power stations have safety mechanisms which would have seemed incredible to those who built the Chernobyl reactor, the anti-nuclear campaigners continue to foment fear, often opportunistically. Sir Jonathan Porritt's Commission on Sustainable Development is among a number of bodies which have started to use fear of jihadist terrorism as an argument against building a new generation of nuclear power stations. I have a sneaking feeling that many of these scaremongers might also be among those who are most opposed to Mr Blair's belt-and-braces legislative attempts to reduce the risks to the public from al-Qa'ida-affiliated terrorists; in other words, they are being insincere.
Besides, the effect of crashing a plane into a nuclear power station of the latest design would kill no more people than crashing the same plane into a coal-fired power station. In fact, it would definitely be worse for the environment if terrorists shut down the much cleaner nuclear station. And if it's fear about the security of our energy supply which motivates those who warn about al-Qa'ida attacks, they should consider how much easier - and more likely - it is for terrorists to blow up a gas pipeline somewhere between here and Siberia.
It was a cruel joke of God to play on the environmentalist movement, that nuclear power would be the best way to guarantee the mass production of electricity with minimal carbon emissions. It has caused former allies to fall out in spectacular fashion. George Monbiot, one of the most intellectually rigorous thinkers within the ecology movement, last week exposed the shoddy arguments of Zac Goldsmith, Mr Cameron's anti- nuclear adviser. Goldsmith's magazine, The Ecologist, had argued that 14 million tons of concrete were required to build a nuclear power station, which would result in a "massive release of carbon dioxide." Monbiot actually bothered to look into this -most people never trouble to check the figures of the eco-loons - and discovered that Calder Hall, which is bigger than modern nuclear power stations, was built with less than one per cent of the concrete claimed by The Ecologist.
I am worried that David Cameron appears to be relying on the wisdom of such people when devising his party's response to Mr Blair's Pauline nuclear conversion. Cameron was right to say that new nuclear power stations should not be paid for out of the pockets of the taxpayer - and if oil and gas prices stay at current levels, they certainly won't need to be.
But in going on to say that nuclear should be on the same economic playing field as so-called renewable energy the Tory leader was directly contradicting himself. Wind energy is currently being subsidised by the tax payer to the extent of almost £1bn a year, which is absurd, given that the intermittent nature of wind power means that not a single fossil fuel or nuclear plant will be decommissioned as a result.
There is a simple fact that should be at the heart of the nuclear debate: the electricity supply industry must be able to deliver warmth and power to the coldest consumer on the coldest day of the coldest month of the coldest year. Projections of our energy requirements in 20 years based on the prejudiced guesswork of eco-fundamentalist fops may have some appeal now: but the present generation of politicians - even those as young as David Cameron - are not going to be the ones who will pay the price when the power cuts start.Reuse content